Study Questions on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Norton ed., p.1768 ff. or Norton Shakespeare Essential Plays, p.445ff)

See also Selected Criticism on Shakespeare in general and on specific plays.

Stephan Flores

1. Explore the play's economy of love, desire, and imagination, beginning with Orsino's opening lines (1.1.1-15). Why does he speak of excess, surfeit, and abatement? How does Orsino regard (and refer to) Olivia?

2. Reflect on Viola's interest in disguise, beginning with her adopting the role of Cesario. What prompts and sustains her reliance on being Cesario? Catherine Belsey states: "There are no identities, Jacques Derrida points out, only identifications; we learn to be the cultural subjects we become by imitating others. To the degree that Cesario comes into being by incorporating a trace of Sebastian, he is both sister and brother, a paradoxical figure who embodies the difference within the interminable process of identification" (Why Shakespeare? 140).

3. Sir Toby Belch vows "I'll confine myself no finer than I am" (1.3.8; 2.3). Speculate on the ideological implications of this declaration of identity and evaluate Toby's confident self-assertion. Describe his relations with (use of/need for?) Maria and Sir Andrew.

4. Why does Orsino enlist Cesario to court Olivia (1.4ff)?

5. Explain Feste's role/position/perspectives (1.5ff). What does he do or want? For example, Karin Coddon argues that Feste is an "ironic commentator" on aristocratic myth, including the myth of a feudal world of loyal, ideal service; Feste also destabilizes or "corrupts" the words of his noble superiors to expose the slipperiness of ostensibly stable categories, ranks, and values. 

6. Analyze Malvolio's situation and desires. Respond to Olivia's claim that Malvolio is "sick of self-love" (1.5.77--William Carroll notes that "All the characters who are in love suffer from some kind of disease. . . The character most notoriously afflicted by a deforming vision and figurative sickness is Malvolio."), and note Maria's sense of Malvolio's character (2.3.131ff). What provokes Malvolio's interests in Olivia, and why (how) is he duped by "M.O.A.I." (2.5). Donna Hamilton (and also John Astington) argues that Malvolio is a scapegoat for those attacking puritans; Greenblatt states that "Malvolio is scapegoated for indulging in a fantasy that colors several of the key relationships in Twelfth Night (Norton Shakespeare 448 or 1764). What are the relations among gender, erotic desire, social mobility, and religious nonconformity in the scenes involving Malvolio?

7. Barbara Freedman suggests that each of the play's characters is "faced with the threat of abandonment, loss, or disillusion in relationship and is indeed character-ized by a particular means of responding to that threat" (Staging the Gaze 203). How might her view enable you to reconsider the play's tone and its characters' behavior? 

8. The play refers repeatedly to signs, language, and interpretation (e.g., Andrew 2.3.4-5; Feste 3.1.10-21 ff.; Malvolio 2.5.108ff and 3.4.60 ff..; Cesario-Viola 1.5.157ff.; Toby 3.2.35ff, 3.4.166ff). What issues become represented, problematized in such scenes? For instance, consider Viola's courtship of Olivia, and such statements as "that question's out of my part (1.5.175) and Olivia's "You are now out of your text" (1.5.227). Consider the extent to which one's identity is realized through language and through others' recognition and affirmation of (or opposition to) one's self via signs. How do we assure ourselves of our identities--might we assert, echoing Malvolio, "I will be point-device the very man. I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me . . . "(2.5.142-44). For a related brief discussion of how playful language may work to question priorities and single-minded perspectives, see McEvoy (Shakespeare: The Basics 169-172).

9. What does the play disclose about gender roles, desires, and identities? Does Orsino love Olivia or Cesario? Does Olivia love Cesario or Viola? Compare Viola's behavior with Orsino (e.g. 2.4) to her exchanges with Olivia (e.g., 1.5, 2.2, 3.1.76ff). Is Antonio "masculine" or "feminine?" (Antonio and Sebastian, 2.1, 3.3, 5.1.66ff, 201ff.; Sebastian and Viola, 3.4.315ff) Are such polarities, terms adequate to define what is represented or suggested? See Valerie Traub (130ff) who explores the homoerotic and homosocial (even homophobic?) configurations and effects of these relationships. Here are Traub's comments:
"The homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity. In other words, Twelfth Night closes down the possibility of homoerotic play initiated by the material presence of the transvestized boy actors. The fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se; homoerotic pleasure is explored and sustained until it collapses into fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality. The result is a more rigid dedication to the ideology of binarism, wherein gender and status inequalities are all the more forcefully reinscribed" (Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean drama p.123). Catherine Belsey observes that "If the speech acts in 1.5 are gendered, the gender in question fluctuates from moment to moment in a tantalizing display of discontinuity and deferral. This is not consistently either a straight or a drag act" (Why Shakespeare? 139). Bruce Smith sums up the play’s erotic confusions in this way: “Desire of male for female (Orsino for Olivia, Sebastian for Olivia), of female for male (Olivia for ‘Cesario,’ Viola for Orsino), of male for male (Antonio for Sebastian, Orsino for ‘Cesario’), of female for female (Olivia for Viola), of male for either, of female for either, of either for either: the love plots in Twelfth Night truly offer ‘what you will’” (Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts 15).

10. Though Viola does something apparently transgressive/radical in disguising herself as Cesario, she seems rather passive in her refusal to shape her destiny or others (2.2.38-39). Why? Is she passive? active? What does she want?

11. In his introduction to the play, Greenblatt states that the "transforming power of costume unsettles fixed categories of gender and social class and allows characters to explore emotional territory that a culture officially hostile to same-sex desire and cross-class marriage would ordinarily have ruled out of bounds" (446 or 1762), which may lead to something "irreducibly strange about the marriages with which Twelfth Night ends" (449 or 1764). Explore such issues of disguise, displacement, and deferral.

12. By Act 5, the festive tones of intrigue and carnival acquire overtones of violence, death, betrayal, and revenge. What do these scenes and motifs contribute? Can they be integrated with or reconciled to the previous action and to the play's "comic" form? What are the effects, for instance, of Orsino's declarations (5.1113-27) or Antonio's final lines and situation (5.1..215) or Malvolio's treatment and perspective (5.1.320-365)?

13. Consider the play's action, characters, and preoccupations in the context of Feste's final song.

14. Read Stephen Greenblatt's introduction to the play in the Norton edition (445-51 or 1761-67). What do you find of interest/use in his comments or questions? For example, he states that in Twelfth Night, "conventional expectations repeatedly give way to a different way of perceiving the world" (446, 1762). With what effects or purpose? Examples?

15. Jean Howard argues that the "play enacts . . . the containment of gender and class insurgency . . . . the play seems to me to applaud a crossdressed woman who does not aspire to the positions of power assigned men and to discipline a non-crossdressed woman who does” (The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England 112). How do Howard's comments affect your understanding of the play?

16. Explore the importance of direct and figurative references to money, payments and tokens of exchange, and material goods. Viola, for example, bestows payments upon the Captain (1.2.16) and Feste (3.1.37), Orsino also rewards or promises rewards to Feste and to Cesario-Viola as well as to Olivia, Antonio lends his money purse to Sebastian, Sir Toby avails himself of Sir Andrew's largesse (3.2.46), and Olivia states that "youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed" (3.4.3).

Further Questions and Resources on Twelfth Night